By: Marilyn L. Davis
“I start with an idea that is no more than a paragraph long, and expand it slowly into an outline. But I’m always surprised by the directions things take when I actually start writing.” ~Barry Schwartz
Too Many Choices of Jam – and Words
Barry Schwartz captured my attention in The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less with several studies showing that multiple choices create difficulties for people making decisions.
Schwartz cited a study where people sampled 24 varieties of jam in one group, while the other group could only sample six of the 24 selections.
Each group could then decide which of the jams to purchase. The surprising result was that the group with more limited samplings purchased more.
This mental process has application for writers of articles as well.
Psychologists have recognized for many years that humans have a limited capacity to store new information in the memory. Psychologist George Miller was influential in studying how individuals process and retain information. His studies confirmed that the average individual experiences information overload after seven pieces of information, and information overload is like too much jam.
If you substituted information for jam, you could see that too much information is an ineffective way to engage and retain readers. Before you decide that you’re a writer and an outline will not benefit you, think about your choices.
• Do you want to stay on track with your original idea?
• Do you want readers to leave because you digressed so far off topic?
When deciding which subject or topic to write about, there are familiar subjects, and then there are the subjects that a writer might like; however, they have not written on the topic before. An outline helps them frame the piece even before they write.
Writers today have access to reams of information about any topic with a simple Google search, and while readers want varied and interesting information, too many links or too much information can cause a disconnect with the readers. If a writer is just free writing and brainstorming any topic, there is the risk of including all the adjunct and subordinating information about topics from the research.
When this happens, it is easy to lose focus on the original idea.
The writing is flowing, the other information about the topic is readily available; there are 37 quotes by famous people about the topic, 45 pictures that will enhance the words, not to mention the 17 videos underscoring the original idea, plus 26 other aspects of the topic that might have applied.
Starting to get a picture of just how quickly a writer gets lost in the minutia? With an outline, the writer has a reference point or a guide that does not interrupt or disturb the writing process. An outline helps a writer frame the information in an organized manner. It does not diminish the creative process, in fact, it allows for more creativity in the writing when the structure is in place.
Know Where You are Going in Your Writing
Think about an outline as your writing GPS.
We all know that there are the scenic routes and the direct routes to any destination. Depending on the platform for the writing determines which route the writer takes.On some sites, readers are accustomed to reading articles of 400 words, on other sites; they may enjoy a 1000+ word article.Writers can engage readers with as little as three main points or add analogies or counterpoints with six main points.
An outline will also help the writer stay on track with the title or topic by:
• Organizing main ideas with subordinate information
• Presenting the information in a logical manner
• Demonstrating the relationship between the sub-topics
• Constructing an ordered overview of ideas
• Consolidating the article in the conclusion
Outlines also let a writer add other points if the research indicates that they would add value. In an outline format, inserting these additional sections is easier to maintain continuity and flow before the actual writing takes place.
Interruptions happen to writers all the time – phone, checking emails, day jobs, emergencies, and families. And the average writer starts back at the beginning of the article to catch up after a distraction. Starting over each time is counterproductive, as most writers will start finding flaws in the writing, begin to edit or revise the beginning of the article when they have not even completed the first draft.
Build An Article with a Plan
Regardless of the nature of the interruption, an outline is similar to an architectural blueprint or floor plan which helps the writer see the finished design and can easily refocus attention.
An outline improves a writer’s skill in creating the first draft without editing while writing. There is no issue with trying to figure out the correlations between paragraph one and paragraph four; the outline demonstrates the flow and presentation of the article.
This is especially true for writers familiar with their subject when it is apparent that the writer needs to add, subtract or change the order of certain ideas. An outline helps the writer maintain the logical progression of the article and improve their communication of the ideas before spending time writing the piece.
When a writer learns to streamline the process of writing using an outline, both the writers and readers have a better experience. An added benefit of an outline is that if you exceed a word count for one site, you will have additional information that might be suitable for another article or reworked for a different site. Also, an outline lessens the possibility of great writing simply going up in smoke because the writer got distracted and forgot.
With an outline, the writer already has information for another post, and this will certainly help with annoying writer’s block. Outlines streamline the choices for all writers and help with simplifying the direction for the next article.